Black Firefighter Sues City

Colin Ross, Yale Daily News (New Haven), October 16, 2009

On Thursday, New Haven firefighter Michael Briscoe filed a federal lawsuit against City Hall officials, claiming that New Haven’s 2003 firefighter promotional exam had a “disparate impact” on blacks and unjustly denied him promotion to lieutenant. Briscoe’s suit comes less than four months after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that throwing out the same test unfairly discriminated against a group of 20 mostly white firefighters.

No black firefighters scored high enough on the test to qualify for a promotion. The city, fearing the black firefighters would sue, decided not to certify those results. The Supreme Court ruled that action unjustified, and now the black firefighters are indeed suing.

New Haven Corporation Counsel Victor Bolden said Thursday that City Hall officials will still push to certify the 2003 results, which would keep Briscoe ineligible for promotion.

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But the lawyer who brought the Supreme Court case, Karen Torre, said in a statement that Briscoe’s motion could complicate her case, Ricci v. DeStefano, which has been remanded to a lower federal court to decide how to avoid future discrimination. Since the contested 2003 test, no new lieutenants or captains have been promoted.

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In August, the Supreme Court ruled in the 5-4 decision that refusing to certify the promotional exam, which originated with an 1986 agreement reached with the firefighters’ union, violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination based on race, sex, religion or national origin. (Of the 20 firefighters who filed the lawsuit against the city, one was Hispanic and 19 were white.)

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Rosen [David Rosen, Briscoe’s lawyer] argued that City Hall officials disproportionately considered the written and oral sections when determining test scores.

According to the lawsuit, the oral section of the city exam counted for 40 percent of the score, while the written counted for 60 percent. Across the nation, Rosen wrote, public safety officials count the section as 70 percent and written section as the remaining 30. Briscoe scored the highest of all 77 candidates for lieutenant on the oral section, but his poorer performance on the written section dropped him to 24th place–too low for promotion. Had the ratio of the sections been switched, Briscoe would have been one of the top candidates, according to the lawsuit.

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